Adam Ellwanger is a professor of English at the University
of Houston. The article was originally published in American
I am an English
professor and I have not read a novel since 2009. I do not
intend to read another.
I am uninterested in all forms of creative writing, but when
it comes to the genre of the novel my attitude is not one
of mere indifference. What began as a lack of will to read
slowly grew into an active refusal to do so.
In the first half
of the 20th century, the Great American Novel was considered
the premiere mode of American artistic expression. In contrast,
the average reader today may have a few favourite novelists,
but there is little public consensus about today’s ‘great
masters.’ There may be a loose consensus among the educated
elite, but the names on that list wouldn’t be recognizable
to most Americans. The pre-eminence of the novel in culture
has been displaced by popular music and cinema.
Yet I say the
decline of the novel is a good thing. Here’s why.
narrative storytelling is an ancient phenomenon, the form
of the novel as it exists today first manifested under very
specific cultural circumstances in a particular place and
particular moment in time: Europe of the 17th century. A number
of preconditions had to be met for the ascent of the novel.
methods had to be refined to a degree that longer works could
be steadily produced. Second, the cost of printing long-form
texts had to reach a certain floor in order to make the production
of such works profitable. Finally, the profitability of the
novel was linked to the number of people who were able to
read them, the number of people who wanted to read them, and
the number of people with the necessary time and money to
In other words,
only in a society with historically high rates of literacy
and a sizable population with significant money and time for
leisure could a form like the novel really rise to prominence.
of the novel was an effect of the economic, educational, and
cultural success of the modernizing Western societies of the
Enlightenment. At the start, the novel was written for the
satisfaction of bourgeois appetites. While the popularization
of the form mirrored the democratization of all culture that
was unfolding across the West, it also reflected Western decadence.
As the middle
class grew, so did the novel, which shows that a growing number
of people in the West were affluent and comfortable enough
to be looking for distractions. The common person increasingly
was aping the blissful lethargy of the elites of old. And
so, even today, the novel remains a bourgeois flight of fancy,
a daydream, a salve for those with the time to be dismayed
by the banality of the everyday.
But while mass
consumption of the novel had common people aspiring to aristocratic
leisure, the contents of novels shifted the West’s attention
from the heroic to the demotic. Most of the great literature
of pre-modernity was transfixed by mythic greatness: it depicted
characters who were great warriors, great thinkers, great
villains, great kings, great queens, great gods. Pre-modern
texts were ruminations on great goodness and great evil. Texts
like Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s
Canterbury Tales were among the first to prefigure
modern literature’s fixation on the everyday. The farts
of the characters in Chaucer’s “Miller’s
Tale” continue to echo and waft through the contemporary
FROM THE HEROIC
TO THE MUNDANE
Rare is the novel
today that valorizes the heroic. Instead, today’s novels
tend to depict average people in unusual circumstances. They
elevate the low—low ideas, low speech, low behaviours.
In so doing, they endorse those things. They seek to glorify
the mundane -- to present the everyday man as hero, and as
a result end up lowering our expectations of people. In short,
they serve to kindle the smouldering Western malaise.
In a seeming paradox
though, in depicting the ordinary as heroic, the ordinary
people who read novels come to see themselves as heroes. This
fuels the twin ideologies of individualism and authenticity
that reign over Western culture, and especially, America.
Individuals come to see life itself as personal artistic expression,
and ‘being true to yourself” or ‘you doing
you’ becomes the central way that regular people strike
the heroic pose. Generally, this means acting in defiance
of cultural norms, expectations, and traditions in pursuit
of realizing personal desires (a common source of the conflict
in many contemporary novels).
the reading of novels puts the average person in an aristocratic
posture, novels also encourage elevating the self over shared
cultural norms—something that weakens the social order
that enables the bourgeois artistic expression that novels
In yet another
paradoxical twist, the widespread popularity of novels also
gave birth to a new aristocratic class: literary experts.
These priestly figures have credentials that indicate their
expertise as cultural interpreters who divine the meaning
of novels and other creative texts. Thus, while the general
public can read novels, it falls to an educated, hermeneutic
elite to do the hard work of understanding and appreciating
The novel can’t
simply be understood as a story -- it must be understood as
a story with a point. That point -- which is typically called
a theme -- is an implied argument, a larger claim about the
world that is dramatized through the events of the narrative.
Because the “meaning” of a novel is articulated
implicitly, English professors and critics take on the task
of explicating the meaning, performing a critical mining of
the text in an effort to articulate the unstated claims of
These mining techniques
are the primary thing that is taught to students majoring
in English today. Given that the idea of canonicity is now
mostly considered a tool of white male ideology, syllabi reading
lists no longer assign works chosen because of their aesthetic
achievements or their depiction of moral excellence. The main
driving force behind the choice of works that professors assign
is a consideration of the utility of the work in advancing
a critique of traditional Western culture and values. The
primary value of Huckleberry Finn comes to be its
illustration of the moral bankruptcy of 19th-century white
supremacy. The primary value of The Awakening comes
to be explicating its theme of the spiritual constraints that
American patriarchy places upon women.
With that implicit
claim fully mined, classroom conversations inevitably turn
to how women and girls are still victimized by the men they
share their lives with, and by the larger misogynistic machinery
of society writ large. Contemporary novels are chosen for
the most part on the basis of whether they articulate a critical
view of society as it exists today.
ARE YOU ENTERTAINED?
Given these interpretive
methods, the novel is reduced to one of two things: Older
works are viewed as a kind of historical-ideological residue
through which we can come to understand the shameful legacy
of our past. Newer works are viewed as a kind of confirmation
of the endurance of that shameful legacy in the present.
These two possibilities
expose the political function of the novel and the objectives
of its elite interpreters: they work together to advance an
activist, generally leftist, political agenda for a broad
restructuring of our society. This is to say that novels --
and their interpreters -- have very specific ideas about how
the world should be. Their function isn’t simply to
entertain the reader, but to persuade her.
objective (which seeks to persuade the reader that the theme
of the novel is either an accurate critique of the status
quo or a laudable vision for how the world should be) is only
a problem because of the fictive property of novels themselves.
They tell stories: made-up stories. We don’t need Chopin
to weave us a yarn about a stifled woman at a beach house
to illustrate that 19th-century American society made many
unfair demands of and impositions on women. This isn’t
to say that there isn’t some value in imagining and
writing such a tale or taking some pleasure in reading it.
Rather, the point is that novels often clearly conceive of
themselves as playing a role in public democratic deliberations
that occur outside the imagined world of the novel.
To the extent
that they actually play that role, it only serves to impoverish
public deliberation on important matters of concern. As a
fundamentally imaginative exercise, novels can distort people’s
understanding of the true state of affairs in our society.
As a genre that
seeks to dramatize people and events, novels primarily rely
on pathos to achieve their effect. Pathos is a technique by
which one convinces audiences through a manipulation of their
emotions, and when it comes to public deliberation, most people
recognize that reason is the best guide while emotional manipulation
should be minimized.
Finally, as a
form of entertainment, novels already have considerable persuasive
power. In sum, novels dramatize the imaginary to influence
When I talk to
colleagues about these ideas, they rightly point me to the
cultural value of many of the best-loved novels. Without question,
many novelists have made major aesthetic contributions (Willa
Cather, Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac) and political contributions
(Ayn Rand, George Orwell, Richard Wright) to our society.
But today the
primary measure of value for a novel seems to be its political
utility. These political calculations severely constrain which
sorts of novels are written, which ones are promoted, which
ones are read, which ones are assigned, and which ones will
endure. Most people who still read them will continue to read
novels. But given the questionable value of the historical
and social effects of the popularization of the novel generally,
it is probably a good thing that the public reputation of
the novel has declined.